All right, Madonna: You win. With your 50th birthday just a month away, you have managed to prove—against all precedent and despite any number of young pretenders to your throne—that you’re still the best there is at what you do. No, not music. That was never your strong suit. We’re talking about the fine art of Making Us Pay Attention to You.
The music? That’s largely irrelevant. Madonna’s latest album, Hard Candy, has sold fewer than 600,000 copies in the U.S., or roughly 1 million fewer copies than her previous album. More to the point, what’s the last Madonna single you can hum from memory? Of course, she also makes movies—wait, does she make movies anymore? Has she made one since that one that co-starred yoga and Rupert Everett?
No, the only reason we’re still talking about Madonna after 25 years is that she’s so good at making us talk about her. This is her true art. This has been noted before—when she put out the book of sex photos, or mounted herself on a crucifix in a concert, or that one time she French-kissed Britney Spears. Yet her ability to surprise us continues to surprise us. A-Rod and Madonna—now, who saw that coming? And yet, of course it’s Madonna. Because this is what Madonna does. Just when an album flops, or a movie tanks, or the upcoming tour’s sales falter—basically, just when you’ve started to forget about her, even a little bit—there she is, reminding you that as long as there is a breath in her chest, by God, you will not forget about her.
History has established two fates for pop icons: (a) Die young or (b) Fat Elvis. Kurt Cobain chose the first fate, while Britney Spears is embracing the second. Since Madonna never seemed like the found-dead-in-a-hotel-room type, a reasonable person might have assumed that, by now, she’d be well into her quaaludes-and-peanut-butter stage. But no. She has, through the potent voodoo of fierce will and unlimited resources, kept herself exceptionally well preserved, albeit in an asexual-android kind of way. And she continues to understand she’s only as good as her collaborators, whether on her records (Stephen Bray, William Orbit) or in her latest “scandal,” which, despite hobbling two real-life marriages, still has the whiff of a publicity coup.
So if her creative output has diminished, her true skills remain world-class. Remember when she kissed Britney at the MTV Video Music Awards? The calculated “shocker” that left you both slightly embarrassed and truly impressed? All you could do was sit back and mutter, “Well played, Madonna. Well played.” Now, in A-Rod, she’s claimed another victim with her hyperbaric cougar charms. She’s proved not to be a publicity whore so much as publicity’s madam. And there’s always another ingenue to tongue, another orphan to champion, another athlete to bed. Flash forward a thousand years, and there Madonna will be, among the rubble, immortal, and shtupping Wall-E. And whatever’s left of humanity will no doubt still be watching and thinking, Well played, Madonna. Again.